The Water Gathers: The Feminist Aspects of Protecting Our Oceans

BY GRETCHEN COMCOWICH

When I hear the phrase “Mother Ocean,” I think of my Aunt Karen’s pit bull wagging her tail at my knees. Her husband Chris, an avid surfer, named the dog Ocean — she is one of those dogs who always seems to be watching over you, even as she scurries away under the Maui brush near Karen’s House. Ocean’s muzzle is grey now; old age looks good on her, as long as she has little kids and her new puppy to chase around. Ocean is a mother, a teacher, and a guardian. She is her namesake.


Today, the number of women volunteers who clean beaches and defend our waters far outnumber their male counterparts.


The idea of ocean as mother isn’t just found in the warm waters of the Hawaiian Islands, it is an idea that inches its way across the planet. Legends tying the ocean to women manifest in all different ways. In Greenland, the mother of the sea kept all of the animals hidden in her tangled red hair, safe from those who might hunt them. She did this as retribution for the hunter’s evil deeds and in consideration for the gifts they gave her. In Ireland, the mysterious seal women (or Sulkies) come on land in the moonlight. We’ve also heard tales of Greek sirens calling to Odysseus on his voyage home and mermaids calling to mariners in their dreams.

Beyond these stories, real women have defined our oceans. Female pirates from as early as ancient Egypt have terrified male seafarers for hundreds of years. The island of Nantucket, known for Moby Dick and its whaling history, was run by women.  The men were always absent; out at sea hunting whale. Without these mothers watching for their ships to return, investing their hard earned dollars in the next voyage and raising the next generation of tiny whalers, the island’s legacy would be a blip on history’s radar and not the nautical emblem for American history it serve as today. In the 1970’s, Marie Tharp proved the existence of the deep sea rifts after mapping the ocean floor. Now, if I open Google maps on my tablet, I can run my fingers over the edges she brought to light from the farthest depths of the sea. Today, the number of women volunteers who clean beaches and defend our waters far outnumber their male counterparts.


Women and oceans are tied together by both natural bonds and the treatment we receive in society; our issues are often unseen, unspoken. 


The fact that so many women defend Mother Ocean really isn’t surprising. We are traditionally nurturers and providers. We were the ones to walk to the well to gather what was needed for drinking, washing, and cooking. We know that no oceans mean no food, and no food means no future. Females of other species know this, too. Female sea turtles risk everything to climb on land and lay their eggs on summer nights, regardless of predators and the danger of trying to navigate the sand with flippers designed for the sea. Mother penguins leave their mates in charge of the chicks while they swim miles in search of their family’s next meal—often alone, often in danger. Then there is the story of “Granny,” the centurion matriarch of a pod of orcas in the Pacific Northwest. This 103 year old orca lives with her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Still strong, still capable, she protects her pod to this day, and leaves researchers and marine parks groping for an explanation about the longevity of the killer whale species.

Women and oceans are tied together by both natural bonds and the treatment we receive in society; our issues are often unseen, unspoken. We are underrepresented in almost all positions of power, yet we make up a little over half of the world population. The dire state of today’s oceans is overlooked, even though it covers 71% of our planet’s surface. However, women are listening. We understand.  

Like the old Pit bull, Ocean, we must be watchful, we must be fierce. We must pay attention to the sea, and to the women who are trying to do something about our history of treating our oceans poorly. Without them there is no future.